- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

COLONIAL BEACH, Va. — Virginia and Maryland will cut their female blue crab harvests by a third this year to protect the hallmark seafood of the Chesapeake Bay.

Scientists fear crabs in the Chesapeake are reaching dangerously low numbers. Fishery managers say females, a common ingredient in crab cakes and crab soups, are overharvested and must be protected.

“We do not want to wake up in five or 10 years and realize we have lost this important part of who we are,” Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said yesterday.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley joined Mr. Kaine on the banks of the Potomac River to announce the harvest cuts, which scientists say are necessary to prevent crabs from plunging into serious decline.

“If we take action now, we can restore the Chesapeake blue crab to levels of abundance,” said Mr. O’Malley. He said there’s a threat of “total collapse” of the crab population without the cuts.

Both states are considering subsidies to watermen to ease the economic pain from the cuts.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, said money from a recently approved $25 million fund in Maryland for Chesapeake restoration could be redirected to watermen for non-crabbing activities such as conducting surveys for the state Department of Natural Resources. Mr. O’Malley described the subsidies as a way to “ease the hurt.”

Virginia may consider some sort of subsidy, too, but details haven’t been worked out, said Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Mr. Kaine, a Democrat.

“I’m sure that it’s something that would not be rejected out of hand,” Mr. Hickey said.

Maryland had a similar subsidy program for watermen in the 1980s, when the Chesapeake’s striped bass population was completely closed. Watermen were paid to conduct surveys, lead school tours and work in hatcheries until the striped bass population rebounded a few years later.

Watermen who attended yesterday’s announcement said subsidies are needed, but that some might go out of business anyway.

“We need to have something. We’re on the rock bottom already,” said Roger Parks, a crabber from Morattico, Va. Mr. Parks said watermen agree cuts need to be made after a decade of low harvests, but he said the 34 percent female cut makes it likely many will leave the business.

“It’s going to devastate us. We got nothing to start with,” Mr. Parks said.

Neither state has made final plans to reach the 34 percent goal, though both appear headed toward a size limit of 6.5 inches for females. Also, both states are considering ending the female harvest completely starting in October, when females migrate south through the Bay and are easily caught by watermen.

The states aim to have 200 million adult reproducing crabs in the Chesapeake. Right now, there are about 120 million, said Lynn Fegley, a biologist for Maryland’s DNR who outlined the crab problem to the governors yesterday.

It’s not clear how long the harvest cuts will be in place. Miss Fegley explained to the governors that crab populations are cyclical in nature and hard to predict.

“If we do things right, we’ll see a response fairly quickly,” she added.

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